US travel ban: Arab reactions

Summary: Trump’s order affecting seven Muslim countries widely criticised, but governments not affected remain silent.

President Trump’s order banning nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen has aroused strong protest in the USA, UK and elsewhere. UN human rights experts say it breaches America’s international obligations. Reuters reports a poll according to which 31% of Americans said the ban made them feel “more safe,” 26% said it made them feel “less safe” and 33% said it made no difference. Massachusetts, New York, Virginia and Washington state have joined other states suing the administration over the ban.

Angela Merkel reminded Trump of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which calls on signatories to take in people fleeing war. Theresa May described the order as divisive and wrong, and a petition calling for Trump’s hastily arranged London state visit to be called off (not specifically referring to the travel ban) has been signed by 1.8 million and rising. As the Indian American journalist Fareed Zakaria crisply explained on CNN on 29 January the countries on the list have two characteristics in common: none of their nationals have killed any Americans since 1975 (whereas nationals of Saudi Arabia have killed 2,369, UAE 314, and Egypt 162), and the Trump organisation has no hotels, companies etc in any of them. He argues that the only basis for Trump’s policy is “the exploitation of fear”. There have been many media stories of injustice, hardship or tragedy in individual cases affected by the ban.

Arab public opinion, always difficult to judge, is probably more concerned by Trump’s flip-flop on the Palestine problem and above all by the perceived discrimination against Muslims of which the latest of many examples is his reported intention to concentrate the “Countering Violent Extremism,” (CVE) programme on Islamist extremism, no longer extending it to groups such as white supremacists , and changing its name to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.”

On 29 January the New York Times commented that some Muslim nations were “conspicuously silent” on the order, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt; King Salman spoke to Trump by telephone but made no public comment, and President Sisi said nothing. It quoted Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut: Muslim leaders “are delicately perched between the anger of their own people and the anger they might generate from the American president.” Governments of countries not included in the ban have mostly remained silent.

At government level the strongest reaction in the Middle East has come from Iran, which has said it will take legal, political and reciprocal measures in response to the ban. Yesterday 1 February President Rouhani said on TV “He (Trump) is new to politics. He has been in a different world. It’s a totally new environment to him. It will take him a long time and will cost the United States a lot, until he learns what is happening in the world.” Iran has stopped issuing visas to Americans.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi reportedly described the ban as an insult; “You come to the victim to hold him accountable, to the people who are sacrificing, who are fighting terrorism, to punish them.” The Iraqi Parliament called for a reciprocal travel on Americans, but al-Abadi refused; “We are studying [possible] decisions, but we are in a battle and we don’t want to harm the national interest.” The Foreign Ministry has asked the US to reconsider “this wrong decision”.

Muhammad Siala, Foreign Minister in the internationally recognised Libyan Government of National Accord, said at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa that banning Libya from the US contravened international law and the US Constitution; “it also amounted to a gross violation of human rights and was a form of racial discrimination.”

According to the Voice of America Sudan’s foreign minister told Bloomberg the government would “wait until the period mentioned, until the executive decision passes and see what is next after that and then we’ll act accordingly.”

In a statement complaining of the failure of the Trump team including Jared Kushner to reply to messages from the Palestine government – “if  Trump’s first week in office is the shape of things to come then God help us, God help the whole world” – the chief Palestinian negotiator Saib Erekat also criticised the ban: “We totally disagree with this. It’s really not acceptable to target Muslims. This is a ban on Muslims, this is not a ban on terrorists.”

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation expressed “grave concern” at the ban; “many of those fleeing war and persecution have been adversely and unjustly affected. Such selective and discriminatory acts will …  provide further fuel to the advocates of violence and terrorism at a critical time … The OIC calls upon the United States government to reconsider…”

Of 1 February King Abdullah II of Jordan visited Washington and met Vice President Mike Pence, but not apparently Trump; he reportedly raised the travel ban, emphasising “that Muslims are the number one victims” of Islamic terrorists, who he called religious “outlaws”.

According to the Kuwait Times “of the five major oil monarchies, the only one to express even mild disapproval in public was Qatar.” The Qatari foreign minister visiting Serbia said he hoped American officials would reassess the move and “do the right thing”

However, the Saudi oil minister Khalid al-Falih told the BBC yesterday 1 February, referring to the ban, that the USA had the right to guarantee the security of its people.

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid of the UAE spoke to Trump on the telephone, saying only that “extremism and terrorism had no religion or identity.” The Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayid told reporters at an Arab-Russian Cooperation Forum in Abu Dhabi today 2 February that Trump was within his sovereign rights in issuing the ban; “The impression that the order is targeted against certain group is not right, especially after the US Administration asserted that Muslims are not targeted by that order.” He added that most Muslim countries were not affected by the decision.

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